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From the Country Standard Time Archives

Haggard: substance rules

El Rey Theatre, Los Angeles, March 3, 2002

By Dan MacIntosh

LOS ANGELES - Merle Haggard headlined a particularly eclectic lineup (which also included the Five Blind Boys of Alabama and Ramblin' Jack Elliott) this night, but because his music incorporates folk, gospel, blues and jazz (to name just a few) in addition to country, you might say he embodies eclecticism all by himself.

He introduced "Big City" as a song about Los Angeles. But while this diatribe against city life longs for escape from the concrete jungle, Haggard gave no signs of holding any grudges against La La land. Over the course of approximately 2 hours, Haggard played a 25-song set of mostly hits and a few surprises.

He almost always performs "Silver Wings" and "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down," as he should, but it's always a treat to hear the rarely sung "Shopping For Dresses," which he ought to pull out off the closet more often, and his cover of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues," which he dusted off.

Haggard and The Strangers are a tight unit, but Merle got a little sloppy toward the end of his show when he first improvised a song about Osama in Laden, then when a fan requested "The Fightin' Side of Me," he made up a ditty about marijuana, instead. It was sad to watch this chance to hear one of his better political rants just go up in smoke, so to speak.

The Five Blind Boys of Alabama blur the line between classic Southern soul music and gospel, and their short set was highlighted by a version of "Amazing Grace" set to the melody of "House Of The Rising Sun" and jumping take on Tom Waits' "Way Down in the Hole."

Ramblin' Jack Elliott opened the show with a cowboy-themed set that included Woody Guthrie, Carter Family and Tim Hardin songs. His stories were also memorable, including his thoughts about author Henry Miller.

This show was presented at one of LA's hipper concert halls, with a crowd of mainly college-aged music fans and baby-boomers. While eclecticism is usually a dirty word within the mainstream music business, it obviously holds a magnetic attraction for these concert-goers, since the house was filled before Elliott even took the stage shortly after 7 p.m.

In a big city better known for its shallowness, for this brief moment in time substance joyfully ruled and reigned over style.